Most people think the weight room is the only place you can build muscle and that the treadmill or trail only benefit your cardiovascular fitness. Thing is, you can pack on muscle without barbells and plates. You might even be able to build muscle with running [insert exploding head emoji here].
Read on to learn about running’s muscle-building potential and get tips for maximizing your gains.
The Benefits Of Running
Running is one of the most popular forms of cardio—and for good reason. Research suggests that even leisure running can markedly reduce all-cause cardiovascular mortality risk. Plus, one study published in PLOS One found that running can effectively increase VO2 max, a measure of oxygen capacity, in as little as six weeks.
But can you really build muscle with running?
“The short answer is yes,” says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness Podcast. “The longer answer is that it depends on what kind of running you’re doing.”
You see, in order to build muscle (an effect called muscle hypertrophy), you first have to stress those muscles via exercise. “The stress causes microtears in the muscle, which the body calls on satellite cells to repair,” explains McCall. Once repaired, those muscles become stronger and bigger.
Running puts every muscle in your body to work (though your lower body does the brunt of the work, your core muscles and arms get in on the action, too). The catch? If you place the same stress on your muscles all the time, your muscles adapt to that stimulus and your gains plateau, McCall says. So, if you don’t progress the pace, distance, and/or intensity of your runs, you don’t build that precious muscle.
“To continuously build bigger, stronger muscles, you must increase the intensity of your runs,” McCall explains. This is known as the progressive overload principle.
For this reason, new runners reap the most mass-building benefits from running. “More seasoned runners can maintain muscle mass by continuing to run, but they will have to be strategic to build more,” says McCall.
3 Ways To Build Muscle With Running
Ready to upgrade your running routine to pack on more muscle? Put these three tips to work.
1. Run Faster, For Shorter
Muscles are made up of two main types of fibers: fast-twitch muscles fibers (also known as type II) and slow-twitch muscle fibers (also known as type I). According to New York-based trainer Kristian Flores, C.S.C.S., fast-twitch fiber muscles are primarily responsible for building muscle mass, while slow-twitch are responsible for building muscular endurance.
So, if muscle mass is your goal, Flores recommends doing more sprints. “Jogging primarily works slow-twitch fibers and won’t necessarily aid in muscle mass, while sprinting works the fast-twitch muscle fibers and will,” he says.
Read More: 7 HIIT Workouts That Incinerate Fat
Your move: Focus at least 30 to 50 percent of your running workouts on sprints. “If you’re running three times a week, at least one of those runs should be an internal sprint workout,” McCall says.
2. Do Hill Sprints
“Hill sprints will bring you some serious quad and leg development,” according to McCall.
The sprints will work those fast-twitch muscle fibers, plus running at an incline works your hamstrings, glutes, and quads to a greater degree than flat jaunts, McCall says.
Try it: Find a steep driveway, hill, or trail and complete 10 rounds of sprinting up and walking down. “The more exhausted you feel after each sprint, the greater the muscular benefit,” McCall suggests.
3. Wear a Weight Vest
Weight vests, which are available in varieties ranging from 10 to 50 pounds, put an increased load on your muscles, leading to greater muscle breakdown, says McCall. “Wearing one [while running] can absolutely lead to strength gains,” he says.
However, since your joints will not have yet adapted to the added load, you’ll need to increase your weight slowly. Failure to do so can harm your connective tissues, leading to inflammation and injuries like strains and stress fractures, he says.
McCall suggests starting with a vest that weighs no more than five to 10 percent of your overall body weight and increasing by no more than five-pound increments as you get stronger.
Don’t have a weight vest? Do not strap on ankle weights or carry hand weights as an alterative. “Both will alter the gait of your stride and ultimately do more harm than good,” says McCall.